Arne Van Petegem is misunderstood. But that's no small surprise. After all, he is an electronic songsmith from Belgium who sings in English if he sings at all. What's more, he's interested in subverting the notion that electronic songs aren't to be just that: songs.
Whereas most laptop practitioners favor thought pieces that escalate into noisy oblivion, Petegem is more of a verse-chorus-verse enthusiast, a concept that meets its most blatant manifestation yet on last year's bittersweet Nothing's Lost. The album comes complete with an ensemble of guests weighty enough to make it a real pop record: American Analog Set's Andrew Kenny, Lali Puna's Valerie Trebeljahr, Das Pop's Bent Van Looy and--most notably--Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, who scored a pop-tronica coup with his larger-than-lifespan project, The Postal Service.
Gibbard lent sounds to several tracks and sang the hook of the album's stateside hit, "Couches in Alleys." Gibbard and Petegem knew each other from a remix Petegem had recorded of "Nothing Better," a song from The Postal Service's sole record, Give Up. But Petegem isn't trying to replicate The Postal Service sound--and, hence, their success--by bringing Gibbard into the fold. Whereas Jimmy Tamborello's beats for The Postal Service were all about melody and saccharine elevation, Petegem's electronic-pastiche pop as Styrofoam is more concerned with interconnecting dissonant and ugly strains to render one beautiful fabric.
"It's funny, I was just talking to Brendon [Whitney, Anticon emcee and Styrofoam collaborator/tourmate Alias] about it because there was this show preview in a town and the reviewer talked about how much of a sugary thing Styrofoam is. And we disagree. It's such a noisy thing," says Petegem.
He's riding into Portland, sitting beside Alias, for the fourth show of his fourth American tour and the first with an actual live band.
"I like to juxtapose things. Beautiful sounds can only be beautiful if you put them against a noisy sound first."
Styrofoam and Alias perform together at Wetlands in Chapel Hill on Saturday, Nov. 19. L in Japanese opens at 10 p.m. Tickets are $8.